Lincoln on Government

Steve Novick

The following is adapted from a piece of mine that the Register-Guard was kind enough to print a few years ago:

Abraham Lincoln is, of course, best known as the first Presidential candidate to win Oregon. (As you know, we became a state in 1859 – and we made the right choice.) Then of course there was that whole business of freeing the slaves and winning the Civil War. But Abraham Lincoln should also be remembered as one of America’s most eloquent explainers and defenders of the role of government.

In a July 1854 essay, Lincoln wrote:

“Why … should we have government? Why not each individual take to himself the whole fruit of his labor, without having any of it taxed away?” He answered his own question: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for the people whatever they need to have done, but which they can not do, at all, or can not do, so well, for themselves – in their separate and individual capacities … There are many such things … roads, bridges and the like; providing for the helpless young and afflicted; common schools … the criminal and civil [justice] departments.”

In the same essay, Lincoln made this observation: “The best framed and best administered governments are necessarily expensive.” In other words: in government, as in life, you get what you pay for. That seemed obvious to Lincoln – but today, most supporters of government services would probably be too scared to be that blunt.

Lincoln’s views on taxation were somewhat out of sync with modern Republicanism; he thought that the wealthier members of society should pay a good deal of the cost of government. As President he enacted a progressive income tax. As an Illinois state legislator in 1839, he defended a proposed tax increase this way: “I believe it can be sustained, as it does not increase the tax upon the ‘many poor,’ but upon the ‘wealthy few.’”

He added, with a touch of mischief:

“The wealthy can not justly complain, because the change is equitable … If, however, the wealthy should, regardless of the justness of the complaint, as men often are, when interest is involved, complain of the change, it is still to be remembered, that they are not sufficiently numerous to carry the elections.”

Smart guy, that Lincoln.


  • Mike Austin (unverified)

    they are not sufficiently numerous to carry the elections.

    They are, however, wealthy enough to buy the media so that they can influence those who are numerous to carry elections; they are wealthy enough to fund "think-tanks" that publish their ideology cloaked as science; and they are wealthy enough to buy our representatives, which they have been doing since the Republic was founded.

  • (Show?)

    Very adroitly written, Steve. Thanks!

  • smoker (unverified)

    Seems that Lincoln regarded the wealthy the way Oregon regards smokers. Plus, we're addicted!

  • LB (unverified)

    Yes, let us all honor a president who granted the largest land grants in the History of the U.S. The public giveaways of our land to the railroad industry. Yes, smart guy.

  • davidg (unverified)

    Lincoln's entire term was as a wartime president. Wartime pressures tend to inflate a leader's image of himself and his powers.

    I can think of a recent example.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    Since I've heard all the apocryphal stories about how Lincoln was a frustrated cricket fanatic, I've interpreted a lot of his behavior in terms of the responsibilities of a cricket captain . It actually makes a lot of sense.

    I know I'm biased, but personality wise, he's often assessed as an iNTj, and they invariably follow the cricket paradigm, even if not the game. Maybe I'm unduly biased by the momentary nirvana of catching live NZ provincial action at Otago . A virtual trip to summer.

  • Richard (unverified)

    And look how Jefferson viewed things:

    Thomas Jefferson in 1802: Banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.

    Thomas Jefferson My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.

    Thomas Jefferson I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

    Thomas Jefferson When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe

    Thomas Jefferson The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.

    Thomas Jefferson It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.

    Thomas Jefferson No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.

    Thomas Jefferson The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.

    Thomas Jefferson The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

  • DLD (unverified)

    Posted by: Richard | Feb 12, 2009 7:34:21 PM

    And look how Jefferson viewed things:

    You must be a student.

    Lesson 1: Jeffersonian democracy makes a lot of sense. Lesson 2: We don't follow Jeffersonian democracy.

    Class dismissed.

  • Locutus of Aloha (unverified)

    Meta question: What is the deal with parties promoting the dead members of the other party?

    Hypothesis: Parties, by their very nature, exaggerate their position. By definition, the contrary position provides balance, and by endorsing it in dead persons, it is politically safe.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    Steve Novick:

    Lincoln’s views on taxation were somewhat out of sync with modern Republicanism; he thought that the wealthier members of society should pay a good deal of the cost of government.

    Bob T:

    You're right -- modern Republicans believe in a much higher rate of taxation for the wealthier citizens.

    Bob Tiernan Mult Co.

  • historian (unverified)

    Lincoln's aim was to preserve the Union. As far as being the great emancipator he said:

    In order to preserve the Union he would free some of the slaves, he would free all of the slaves or he would free none of the slaves.

    Whatever worked politically.

    The emancipation proclamation only applied to the states in rebellion, i.e. the confederate states.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Lincoln would have been drummed out of the Republican Party if Gingrich, Boehner, McConnell, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh etc. had been around in his day. I mean, good gawd, the heart of the modern GOP is what we used to call "Dixiecrats".

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